By Tarini Date
This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.
When I first learned that the theme of this year’s class was politics, I was immediately drawn to the idea of freedom of speech/expression on campus. I was drawn to this topic because debates on the freedom of speech to express controversial and conservative opinions/views on university campuses have become common in Canada after Jordan Peterson publically aired his views on gender, and more broadly across North America after conservative speakers have been stopped from speaking on campus by student organizers. I wanted to examine how the university gets constructed as a closed off and intolerant liberal space, and in order to do that I reached out the Freedom of Speech group established at U of T after Jordan Peterson rose to notoriety in 2016 and many students organized demonstrations in support of him voicing their concerns about the university being transformed from a Bastian of freedom of speech to a place were conservative thought was policied and not allowed to be expressed. However, after multiple attempts at reaching out to the group including two cancelled meetings, a sudden cutting off of contact, and the deleting of my post on their Facebook group reaching out to get in contact with people involved in the freedom of speech movement (an occurrence that I found highly ironic given the name and purpose of the group).
Because I was unable to enter the freedom of speech scene on campus I found that I had to change the focus of my project. So I turned to the pro-life demonstrations and people’s responses to them as an area of political organizing. I was particularly interested in the pro-choice group’s attempts at covering up pro-life images. When I started my fieldwork I found that a focus on freedom of speech was rather limiting: totalizing constructions of pro-life supporters, the construction of selves in opposition to said constructions, the victimization of women (and others who can get pregnant), and protecting women (and those who can get pregnant) from said victimization appeared to be of much more significance.
However, as I came to the conclusion of my project I found that the construction of the university as a closed off, intolerant liberal space was central to how the pro-life group positioned itself in response to pro-choice organizing against their efforts. In fact, when I met David, a prominent figure in the pro-life group he noted that his group was increasingly becoming the target of the censorship and that he felt the university has completely curtailed their freedom of speech so they were forced to plan their demonstration off university property. Many of pro-life demonstrators I spoke in the duration of my project echoed David’s sentiments. At the same time the pro-choice group and its supporters had construct a parallel version of events, where the focus is moved away from freedom of speech to protecting students from viewing the graphics and disturbing images that the pro-life group uses in their demonstrations. This results in the creation and spread of parallel narratives from both groups in which both are the victims (the pro-life group construct themselves as victims of censorship, and pro-choice group construct themselves and all of the people who are forced to see the graphic posters as they pass the pro-life demonstrations as victims of visual assault). It’s important for me to point out here that the campus becomes a closed off and intolerant space not as the result of a deliberate liberal/progressive strategy, but as an outcome of the polarization and non-recognition embedded in our times.